Islamic State-inflicted damage on ancient Palmyra stuns antiquities experts


The recapture of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group has brought new revelations of the destruction wreaked by the extremists, who decapitated priceless statues and smashed or looted artifacts in the city’s museum.

Experts say they need time to assess the full extent of damage in Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site boasting 2,000-year-old Roman-era colonnades and other ruins, which once attracted tens of thousands of tourists every year. Syrian troops drove Islamic State out on Sunday, some 10 months after the militants seized the town.

The world knew through satellite images and Islamic State videos that the militants destroyed the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, the Temple of Baalshamin, which was several stories high and fronted by six towering columns, and the Arch of Triumph, which was built under the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus between A.D. 193 and A.D. 211.

But no one knew the extent of the damage inside the museum until a Syrian TV reporter entered on Sunday and found the floor littered with shattered statues. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was decapitated, and the museum’s basement appeared to have been dynamited or hit with a shell.

Some of the damage may have been caused by shelling, which would have knocked the statues from their stands. In the Syrian TV footage from inside the museum, a hole can be seen in the ceiling, most likely from an artillery shell.

Unlike in the Iraqi city of Mosul, where Islamic State militants filmed themselves with sledgehammers proudly destroying ancient artifacts, no militant video was released from Palmyra’s museum.

Before Palmyra fell to Islamic State, authorities were able to relocate more than 400 statues and hundreds of artifacts to safe areas, but larger statues couldn’t be moved, according to the head of antiquities and museums, Maamoun Abdul-Karim. He told AP that about 20 statues were defaced and others had their heads chopped off. State media had earlier reported that a 2nd century lion statue, previously thought to have been destroyed by Islamic State, was damaged but could be restored.

Abdul-Karim said he was relieved that many of the statues had only been disfigured and not demolished. “It’s like having a person whose face was burnt. He is not as good looking as he used to be but he is still alive,” he said.

He said officials have a list of all the statues that were left behind in Palmyra when Islamic State captured the town, which will help in documenting the damage.

Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who is now a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, is less sanguine.

“The level of destruction and vandalism inside the museum is much more significant than we had realized,” he said. Smashing up statues’ faces “means that there is nothing left,” he added.

The Sunni extremist group, which has imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, claims ancient relics promote idolatry. But it is also believed to have profited from looted antiquities.

That may explain why the militants killed the archaeological site’s 81-year-old director, Khaled al-Asaad, who was beheaded last August after he reportedly refused to say where authorities had hidden some of the town’s treasures.

Al-Asaad, who was among scores of people killed by the extremists after they seized the town, had devoted his life to studying Palmyra, and could have played an invaluable role in documenting the damage and restoring its antiquities.

It will take time to assess the extent of the losses and determine if Islamic State carried out excavations or smuggled artifacts out. But the initial findings suggest at least some of the damage is permanent.

Martin Makinson, an archaeologist who lived and worked in Syria until 2011, said the Temple of Baalshamin “was pretty much obliterated,” along with three ancient tombs. He said the inner sanctum of the Temple of Bel was also destroyed.

“Unfortunately the damage that ISIS has caused to the site is pretty irreparable and it would be a sort of reconstruction in some sectors,” Makinson said, using another acronym for Islamic State.

Al-Azm said highly specialized teams will have to go into the hardest-hit areas “to start to document and record each and every stone to try and see what can be restored.” He said Islamic State had specifically targeted the most important monuments.

Asked how bad the damage is, Al-Azm replied: “On the scale of one to 10 it is 10. The only other thing that causes that much damage to a city is probably some earthquake that struck at some time. It was pretty devastating.”

Abdul-Karim told The Associated Press that a team from his department will head to Palmyra later in the day to estimate the losses. Abdul-Karim said he would go himself once bomb squads finish removing explosives planted by the extremists before they lost the town.

The recapture of Palmyra by Syrian government forces on Sunday was an important victory over Islamic State fighters who had waged a 10-month reign of terror there. It also marked the first major defeat for the extremist group since an international agreement to battle terrorism in the fractured nation took effect last year.

The militants also demolished Palmyra’s infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of government opponents were reportedly tortured.

Speaking to AP over the phone, Abdul-Karim said experts still need “many days” to determine the full extent of the damage.

On Sunday, state TV showed the rubble left over from the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, as well as the damaged archway, the supports of which are still standing.

Artifacts inside the city’s museum also appeared heavily damaged on state TV. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was decapitated, and the museum’s basement appeared to have been dynamited, the hall littered with broken statues.

Amr al-Azm said the world was already aware of the damage to the archaeological site but was only now seeing the destruction wrought inside the museum.

“What was unfortunate really was the damage inside the (Palmyra) museum, the many of the pieces that have not been saved, that they (Damascus officials) did not have time or the ability to move,” Al-Azm said via Skype. “It seems that a significant amount of damage was inflicted on them.”

Abdul-Karim said that Islamic State fighters smashed the statues’ faces but didn’t totally destroy them. “We can renovate them,” he said. “Yes, we lost part of the original but we didn’t totally lose them.”

“All smashed statues can be renovated as they were not totally destroyed,” he said.

Syrian military bomb squads worked Monday on removing mines and bombs planted by Islamic State across much of Palmyra, including residential areas as well as the historic quarter, an official said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The Lebanon-based Hezbollah TV stations — Al-Manar and Al-Mayadeen — which have both reported from inside Palmyra, showed videos of explosions inside the town on Monday, saying that Syrian troops are detonating explosives that are difficult to dismantle.

The government forces had the support of Iranian-backed Lebanese militias and Russian air power in the advance on Palmyra.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday called Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani to discuss Syria. Both leaders described the retaking of Palmyra as a “true landmark event” according to the Kremlin’s website.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that it was only a small, though important, part of the Russian air force that supported the operation.

During a Monday conference call with reporters, Peskov said that even though a large part of the Russian military has left Syria, the remaining air assets will continue to fight “terrorist groups” and help the Syrian army.